If recommendations made to Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week are enacted, prekindergarten will be expanded, students will have more learning time, and small school districts will be encouraged to merge.
Other changes to education would come as well, and local school officials say many of them are sound, but they question how schools will pay for them.
“Schools are having a difficult time funding what programs they have now,” said Timothy Farrell, superintendent of Minerva. “When we talk about expanding program, I’m not sure how we will do that.”
On Wednesday, the New York Education Reform Commission met with Cuomo and some of his cabinet members to propose preliminary recommendations as part of a 92-page “action plan.”
Cuomo supported many of the recommendations, but offered little in the way of specifics. He said he needed time to review the report before his State of the State address Wednesday.
Commission members acknowledged it will be difficult to put the recommendations in place, but said they would provide the foundation for a world-class education system in New York. The recommendations are based on input from education experts across the state.
One recommendation is to offer full-day prekindergarten in school districts with high poverty.
Right now, only some school districts have prekindergarten classes, and those that do only provide the program for a few hours a day. Many schools use a lottery system to select which students can take part in the program.
Douglas Huntley, superintendent of Queensbury, said he likes the idea of prekindergarten for children who need it most, but a mandate to offer the program should not interfere with parents who expose their children to prekindergarten through other means.
“The research has demonstrated clearly that students who have a (prekindergarten) program are more likely to experience success in school than those who don’t,” Huntley said.
But the recommendation has drawbacks, officials said.
Local superintendents wondered how the state could mandate prekindergarten when kindergarten is not required.
Farrell, whose district has offered prekindergarten for years, questioned whether a 3- or 4-year old is ready to be in school for a full day.
Money is also a question.
“If it’s a funded mandate, then I think that makes sense,” Huntley said. “If it’s an unfunded or underfunded mandate, districts cannot afford to do it.”
Another recommendation is to encourage school districts with 2,000 students or fewer to merge, share services or form regional high schools.
The commission said more than half of the state’s 700 school districts have fewer than 2,000 students, yet have their own administration and back office functions, which could be reduced through consolidation.
Most of the local school districts have enrollments below 2,000.
Minerva has 125 students from prekindergarten to grade 12, and Farrell said his district has been the subject of consolidation studies in past years.
“Ideas like that might prove to be helpful for little Adirondack schools in the future so we can keep the needs of our communities and still provide programs for kids, which is becoming difficult given the flat state aid,” he said.
James Dexter, district superintendent of the local BOCES, said a regional high school makes sense because it could lead to more programs and services for students.
“I think the greatest outcome for a regional high school approach is that you have more pathways available for kids,” he said. “Some schools have a hard time creating electives.”
John McDonald, superintendent of Ticonderoga, a district with nearly 900 students, said not all districts of 2,000 students or fewer can merge because some are located too far from the nearest other district.
Still, he said, districts should explore changes that could lead to savings, whether through sharing services or merging.
Ticonderoga and neighboring Crown Point are studying the feasibility of a merger.
“Every school should look at what opportunities are out there,” McDonald said. “Whether it leads to a merger or sharing, it’s incumbent upon the communities to examine these things and try to make decisions about the future.”
The commission also recommended longer school days and academic years, expanded social and health services for students, greater use of technology to support students and teachers, and expanded programs to prepare students for college.
In addition, the commission recommends expanding career and technical education programs and improving how teachers and principals are trained. This includes establishing a bar exam for educators.
The commission plans to submit a final report in the fall. Local school officials said they hope the next report addresses the state’s system for funding schools, which has been criticized because poor school districts that rely heavily on state aid lose more of it when it’s cut. Some also said the next report should address pensions and health insurance, which are major expenses for schools.
“They have not addressed the inequities in state aid to public schools and they have not addressed the major cost drivers. I’m looking forward to their next report,” Huntley said.
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